I was a young man when I first visited Indonesia. I thought nothing of jumping on a Pelni ferry at Kupang to sail to Alor, Larantuka, Bima and Ampenan. In those days deck class really meant deck. I was with a group of civilians sitting on the hold at one end of the ship with an Army detachment at the other end. When the freighter (for such it was) wanted to unload or load goods at any of the ports, everyone had to get out of the way.
It was an early experience of what is a close approximation of village life, getting to know your neighbors on the 10-day voyage. A soldier made friends, taught me Indonesian and supplied me with roasted corn. Then, on the third or fourth day, a couple of refined young men approached. One spoke to me in a language that to this day I do not recognize. Perhaps he had spent years in his quiet township in the islands learning Esperanto, which some at that time believed would become the universal language.
It was distressing to watch the obvious disappointment on the face of the speaker, and the concern on the face of his friend for someone close to him who was experiencing a crisis. The will to communicate was there but the capacity to do so was not, for reasons that remain a mystery.
A similar situation appears to be occurring in our schools. While the state schools remain the preserve of the Indonesian language and pesantren have their specific curricula, often including foreign languages, every other player in the game is striving to be an ‘international school,’ which means presenting a good part of daily lessons in the English language.
There has been concern recently that those teaching in English are not equipped to do so properly, while many young Indonesians, accustomed to speaking English at school and bahasa gaul with their friends, develop little understanding of their own language.
Some, if the standard of teachers is low, run the risk of learning some polyglot language that will probably get tagged as IndoEnglish, just as Singlish is recognized as a distinct language in Singapore.
I sat down once with the late Rosihan Anwar and was rash enough to suggest that Indonesian was not a particularly complex language. He snapped back, “People don’t understand its complexities because they never bother to learn it.” That is certainly true in Indonesia’s so-called up-market schools today, where the struggle to learn English often means that Indonesian is neglected.
Mothers complain that they too are forced to learn English because their own children lack any real facility in Indonesian and prefer to speak English. Cable television, with its increasing hold on the middle class, is a further vehicle for the dissemination of English to the neglect of the national language.
The loss or diminution of any language is always cause for regret. And while languages are constantly changing, a degree of order makes life easier for everyone involved. Thus the prospect of hundreds of thousands of children being taught English by people who really cannot speak or write English represents a threat to what language fetishists like me consider the sanctity of a fine language, the result of over a thousand years of invasions and blending of tribes with the later refinement of Norman phrasery and other inputs. And so on. It is a fine language and, conveniently for me, has turned into the single international language.
Indonesians are therefore correct in wanting their children to grow up speaking good English. It is the language of commerce, of scientific endeavor and much more. There are few places in the world where you cannot get by with a bit of English and some sign language.
Nationalism in reverse?
It is tempting to draw a parallel with the current wave of “we can do it ourselves” policies, particularly in the resources sector. It’s a fine ideal, but it may not prove to be practical.
In fact the enthusiasm of schools and school kids for English suggests that there is a contrary current from the high-level political discourse about Indonesia’s need to develop its own resources. Society to some degree is being pulled in different directions: The middle class wants to become more internationalized, the elite wants to maximize benefit for the nation.
There is, however, no inherent contradiction in these two goals and they should be able to develop together. An internationalized, well-traveled population of people capable and competent to build their own nation into a stronger force is a potent ingredient for success. Cheaper air travel – and expanding incomes that make it increasingly affordable – is another important factor in the internationalization of the middle class.
This process will however be inevitably set back if one of the basic foundations of a smart society – a high level of communications skills – is poorly constructed due to a failure to understand the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of the preferred language, whether it be English or Indonesian.
The question of the competence of English taught in schools is therefore critical: Teachers who have only the simplest understanding of English can hardly be expected to teach it properly. Once more, Indonesian society appears to have fallen into the trap of establishing a goal – competence in English – without considering the resources needed to achieve that goal.
The root of the problem, then, is not natural resources but human resources. The capacity to teach students how to apply logic to a problem is a critical underpinning of any form of endeavor. Yet the Ministry of National Education is clearly part of the problem, with a legacy of New Order attitudes discouraging real learning, vague policy, shoddy monitoring and internal conflicts over what should be the correct direction for educational policy.
Indonesia’s so-called demographic bonus is at risk of being squandered by ‘business as usual’ bureaucrats and entrepreneurs who adopt the standard ‘close enough is good enough.’ In reality, an education system that disgorges millions of young high school graduates who have done little more than learn a set of ‘facts’ without learning how to think represents a major obstacle to national development.
University graduates are not much better. In most cases, there is a critical inability to distinguish the facts in any given situation and to develop any analysis from those facts. Even at this level, students have simply not been taught to think for themselves.
Without educational competence, the chance of Indonesia achieving its current dream of an increased ability to command its own future without having to hand over excessive profits to foreign interests must represent a risky proposition. Get the basics right first, then the rest will follow, but if the basics are wrong or incomplete, any effort is likely to be doomed to failure.